ALMOST EVERYTHING IN THE PLAYGROUND of the Ban Ba-Ngo primary school, in the Pattani province of southern Thailand, looked like it belonged there. Newly potted plants had little pink name-tags hanging from them, a tatty poster with cartoon children explained why fruit was important for nutrition, and a collage on the wall, with crepe-paper flowers stuck around its edges, celebrated the life of King Bhumibol, the country’s monarch. What did not belong was the line of four men in combat fatigues, who sat facing the playground, their M16 assault rifles leaning against a wall.
Kasem Jeh Ali, the acting principal of the school, whom I met in his office, explained why the military men were there—but he did so with great reluctance. Ali was weary of reliving the moment in December 2012 that had led to these soldiers showing up at the school every day.
“I was eating lunch with six colleagues in the canteen,” Ali said. He paused, and in the silence, his eyes reddened. Then, he continued. “We suddenly noticed there were two strangers standing beside us. They didn’t say a word. They just pulled out their guns and fired.”
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